The Rise and Fall of Third-party High-speed Access

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1 This work is distributed as a Discussion Paper by the STANFORD INSTITUTE FOR ECONOMIC POLICY RESEARCH SIEPR Discussion Paper No The Rise and Fall of Third-party High-speed Access By Gregory L. Rosston Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research August 2006 (Revised August 2008) Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Stanford University Stanford, CA (650) The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research at Stanford University supports research bearing on economic and public policy issues. The SIEPR Discussion Paper Series reports on research and policy analysis conducted by researchers affiliated with the Institute. Working papers in this series reflect the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research or Stanford University.

2 The Rise and Fall of Third-party High-speed Access Gregory L. Rosston Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Stanford, CA August 2008 Abstract: While Internet usage blossomed during the entire time period, there was a large change in the nature of the high-speed Internet access business. Initially, connection, routing and content were three separate parts of high-speed Internet service. Cable companies initially teamed with affiliated third-party providers to create their highspeed access combination of connection and routing whereas telephone companies resisted working with third-party providers for their high-speed access product. In the end, both cable and telephone providers moved toward a more integrated approach to the provision of high-speed access. However, content has remained, for the most part, separate from connection and routing. This paper finds that changes in the cost of caching, bandwidth and more standardized technical knowledge led cable companies toward the integrated approach favored by telephone companies, and changes in regulation facilitated integrated provision by telephone companies. At the same time, integration of access with content did not provide similar efficiencies and content remains provided for the most part by independent companies. Keywords: Internet; telecommunications; competition; vertical integration. JEL: L22, L24, L96. I would like to thank Sasha Aganin, Tim Bresnahan, James Ducayet, Shane Greenstein, Scott Savage, Scott Wallsten, and two anonymous referees for valuable comments and help with this paper, and Eugene Agronin, Albert Chen and Sam Wang for research assistance. I have consulted for AT&T, MCI, Pacific Bell, Verizon, various CLECs, cable companies and internet-based companies.

3 The Rise and Fall of Third-party High-speed Access I. Introduction From the commercialization of the Internet in 1993 and the introduction of the Netscape browser in 1994, the widespread public view of the Internet has been one of incredible leaps forward in usage and technology despite the dot.com and telecom meltdowns of This overarching view is true. Internet usage, adoption and technology have been relentlessly advancing: more users have gotten online, more users have adopted higher speed services, and many more applications are now available to make the online experience more enjoyable and productive (and counter-productive). At the same time, many observers seemed to think that the Internet would change the laws of economics that old style thinking just didn t get it in the lingo of Silicon Valley circa The rush to get eyeballs and ensure scalability were important phenomena of the early Internet, but, at the end of the day, the rules of economics were still applicable and drove the path of high-speed access. The Bresnahan and Greenstein (1999) analysis of the evolution of the computer industry shows how it transitioned from vertically integrated industry into an industry with divided technical leadership ( DTL ) where different firms competed at different vertical levels in the provision of the ultimate product. The vertical integration-dtl framework is useful in analyzing the evolution of high-speed access from the AOL dialup world through the time of divided connection, routing, and content to the current world where connection and routing are provided together and content is provided separately for the most part. Just as the government played a role in the development of

4 the structure of the computer industry through the IBM antitrust case, the government played a role in the evolution of the market structure of high-speed access. The introduction of high-speed access service in the mid-1990s and associated regulation led to various different business models. Ultimately, despite the attempts by regulators to divide high-speed access into separate connection and routing layers, and the attempts by companies to provision high-speed service in different ways, cable and telephone high-speed access provision moved to a model of integrated connection and routing. At the same time without regulation (but with a threat of regulation) content has been provided primarily by unaffiliated companies. This paper shows how the economic and regulatory forces led to the initial divisions between connection, routing, and content and ultimately led to integrated provision of connection and routing ( access ) and separate provision of content. Werbach (2002) compresses the seven-layer OSI model (physical, data link, network, transport, session, presentation, and application) into four layers (physical, logical, applications and services, and content) to distinguish how regulation should apply to Internet services. For the purposes of this paper, I use three layers based on how firms have divided service in practice: connection is the physical connection between the user and the provider; routing is the service that is provided over the physical connection that allows transmission to take place. 1 Routing also has included routine applications like . More general content services that are not generally bundled with access provision are considered content. 1 Together, connection and routing roughly map to the bottom four layers (physical, data, network and transport) of the TCP/IP protocol stack. 2

5 The study ends in 2001 when the current industry structure developed. Although the number of high-speed access customers has grown substantially, the industry structure has not changed connection and routing are generally bundled together and only a limited amount of content is provided with that bundle. The endogeneity of market structure is an important issue in economics how do cost characteristics, changes in cost characteristics, and new technology combine to affect market structure and the delivery of services. Bresnahan and Greenstein (1999) provide an analysis of the development of the computer industry market structure. Noam (2006) looks at the overall telecommunications industry and argues that it is becoming more cyclical and oligopolistic. Downes and Greenstein (2002) analyze the Internet Service Provider ( ISP ) industry and the competitiveness in different geographic areas. The Internet started as an academic network, but quickly changed when it became a commercial network without restrictions. In 1995, at the start of home broadband access, it was unknown how the new market forces and technological advances would play out. Blumenthal and Clark (2001), Clark et al (2006), Lemley and Lessig (2001), and Werbach (2002) are examples of studies that have examined the organization of the Internet marketplace through engineering and legal prisms. In most cases, these studies provide very interesting views about the history of the end-to-end principle of the original Internet design, but do not focus on the economic factors that drive market structure. For example, Clark et al (2006) provides a very insightful description of the development of overlay networks and the regulatory issues that arise from the changing nature of the services that are provided. However, there is little or no discussion about the economic forces that have led to the development of the overlay networks. 3

6 This paper attempts to fill the gap between the two strands of the literature by taking the economic approach of Bresnahan and Greenstein (1999) to understand market structure drivers and using the detailed institutional detail as in Clark et al (2006) about the integration of high-speed access provision to understand how we arrived at the current market structure. Section II provides a background of the industry and technology. Section III explores the initial responses of cable, telephone, and third-party access providers to the new opportunity to provide high-speed services. Section IV examines the economic and regulatory changes that took place between 1996 and 2001 and discusses how those changes affected the provision of high-speed access. Section V describes the attempt to tie content provision to access and Section VI presents conclusions. II. Background In 1995, the Internet was relatively new Netscape introduced its browser only the year before which began the widespread adoption of home-based Internet service. Residential Internet access was primarily on dial-up access lines with very little highspeed access service available. There were a large number of small ISPs who were able to provide dial-up service because the economies of scale for bare-bones dial-up access was relatively low and the interface with telephone service meant that modem banks did not have to be inside the incumbent local exchange carrier ( ILEC ) central office. At the most basic level, high-speed access requires a connection to the end user, routing equipment, and a connection to the broader Internet where users can find content. This somewhat overly simplistic model shows three possible divergences in the vertical chain connection, routing and content. In 1996 it was unclear if high-speed access 4

7 providers would provide one, two or all three services, and whether consumers wanted integrated provision or not. For dial-up service, which was most prevalent at the time, connection and routing were primarily separate. AOL was the largest dial-up provider and also provided a large amount of content to its customers, but used telephone lines for connection. The small economies of scale and common carrier requirements allowed a large number of independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to use the telephone network to provide service and as a result, ILECs were not the dominant provider of dial-up Internet access (Downes and Greenstein, 2002). The divided nature of the business changed with the advance in technology that allowed high-speed access. To implement high-speed access, cable companies adopted a semi-divided business model while telephone companies wanted a fully-integrated business and fought regulatory mandates to facilitate independent access providers (Noll and Rosston, 2002). The differences between cable companies and telephone companies in networks, geographic scope and historical structures help to explain the different attitudes toward self-provision and divided technical leadership at that time. High-speed access posed substantial technical hurdles in the mid-1990s: technology risk; requirements to install and deploy equipment throughout the network; and systems challenges (At Home, 1999; Covad, 1998). The incumbent cable and telephone companies had physical connections to homes, but did not have the complete package necessary to provide high-speed Internet access, in part due to their technical and business capabilities. On the telephone side the 1984 antitrust settlement and subsequent 5

8 FCC decisions separated Internet access from the provision of telecommunication services, making it easier for third parties to provide service (Cannon, 2003). Other firms leapt into the void to provide the necessary complementary services. On the cable and other firms including Roadrunner and High-Speed Access began to provide high-speed access with the backing of cable companies. Such investments complementary service were not new to cable companies; they had also invested in the initial cable programming networks (Waterman and Weiss, 1997) On the telephone side, independent Competitive Local Exchange Carrier ( CLEC ) DSL providers like Covad, NorthPoint, and Rhythms among many others came into existence after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 ( TelecomAct ) because the Telecom Act required ILECs to lease unbundled network elements to competitors at regulated rates. With the entry of firms providing service complementary to the wires provided by cable and telephone companies, the high-speed access industry looked like it might move to the computer industry divided technical leadership model, where cable and telephone companies provided the connections to the household, other firms provided routing service over those wires and a third set of firms provided content. However, the Internet marketplace changed substantially between 1996 and The changes in the marketplace were not limited simply to the run up and subsequent significant diminution in value of Internet companies (the so-called bubble and subsequent crash ), but also involved substantial core economic issues that affected the underlying value of third-party access providers network and business value. Changes in the cost of backbone transport, storage, competition in the marketplace, and regulation all 6

9 adversely affected the profitability of third-party high-speed access. In addition to the high-speed access capabilities, the content side of the Internet suffered from a substantial drop in advertising revenue in 2000 and This revenue drop hampered the business plans of some of the third-party access providers, most which had diversified into content as well as access. The fundamental economics led to a world where the divided technical leadership in home high-speed access is very different than many investors thought it would be in the late 1990s, and nearly all of those companies that jumped in to fill the void between the physical connection and the Internet ended up without anything to show for their efforts. The comparative advantages third-party routing providers brought to the table in the late 1990s disappeared rapidly. They were unable to develop up a sustainable position in the chain because their technical leadership disappeared with the commoditization of their skills and assets. In addition, some of the ideas and market niches they attempted to serve did not materialize or were not profitable. Finally, there may have been efficiencies from vertical integration or strategic incentives that may have caused the dominant firms to try to force them out of business (Noll and Owen, 1994; Rey and Tirole, 2003). Cable companies embraced partial outsourcing of high-speed access initially whereas telephone companies resisted use of third parties to provide high-speed service. The differences between cable and telephone companies allow us to discern the key economic forces that drove the collapse of a division between connection and routing, but continued the separate provision these two layers and content. The remainder of this section provides a background of high-speed access provision. 7

10 A. Access and content From 1996 through the end of 2001, the Internet grew rapidly. Traffic on Internet backbones in the U.S. increased from 1,500 terabytes per month in 1996 to 20,000 35,000 terabytes per month in Not surprisingly, the number of cable modem and DSL subscribers and the associated revenue grew rapidly over this time period as well. However, despite rapid growth, even by the start of 2000, there were only 2.7 million residential and small business high-speed access lines. The number of high-speed subscribers was smaller than many people had expected and planned for, resulting in substantial overinvestment and leading to rapid price declines in parts of the industry. Even while the marketplace was small compared with the more than 82 million (FCC, 2007) high-speed access lines in 2006, the economic lessons and early changes and experimentation in delivery methods were important for the current mass market delivery of home high-speed access. Access and content are interrelated content is a prime driver of the demand for access. and access leads consumers to demand content and associated advertising. While the marketplaces for access and the marketplace for advertising and content have interrelationships, it is better to analyze them separately because the market forces affecting the two over this time period were very different. As used in this paper access means the connection of cable and telephone company subscribers premises to the Internet. Access includes the subscriber connection as well as the routing and backbone networks. Advertising and content (sometimes referred to as media ) include the 2 Coffman and Odlyzko (2002a). 8

11 revenues generated from advertising on the various associated websites and the expenses incurred to create website content. One concern in the provision of content has been the incentive and ability of access providers to favor their own content over that of rival content providers, and the ability of an integrated content provider to withhold content from a rival access provider (Rubinfeld and Singer, 2001). The vertical power concern was examined in the context of open access proposals around 1999 and continues to be an issue now under the name of network neutrality. High-speed access companies adopted different strategies with respect to the integration of content and conduit. This differentiation allows us to identify better the separate effects of each part on the ultimate market structure of the high-speed access industry. B. Features of the new high-speed access networks New high-speed access network design depended on assumptions about how the marketplace and cost structure would evolve. The use of caching in the network and the ability to develop technical standards for networks were important issues in the early development of high-speed access. 1. Caching If the Internet is slow, the benefits of high-speed local access will be limited. According to Rhythms Net Connections in 1998, one of the new CLECs, [l]ittle if any distributed storage capacity currently exists in either private or public networks. As a result, when user volume exceeds network capacity, data transmission is either slowed or information is lost. Today, each time a user accesses a high usage company database or 9

12 web site, the data must traverse the entire local and wide area network, wasting capacity and decreasing user performance. 3 In 1996, there were approximately 10 national Internet backbone providers. 4 The speed of the backbone was 45 Mbps 144 Mbps. 5 Caching was developed as a response to the problem of shortage of backbone capacity and provided end users with much faster access by storing web pages on a server that was closer to the end user so that the information could be transferred more cached information at its regional data centers and also cached some information at some of the cable headends because it believed that the Internet backbone was not sufficient to provide a reliable, high-speed experience. Rhythms and other CLECs also cached information, but not to as great an extent 2. Technology standards Standards are important in many high-tech applications. Both cable and DSL providers relied upon the TCP/IP building blocks for their networks, but the structure of the underlying wired networks made it so that they had different mechanisms for transporting those signals. Within cable and telephone networks, there were benefits to being part of a standard technology to achieve economies of scale and benefit from coordinated research and development and the development of complementary products. In addition to providing much of the technology employed in the cable high-speed access also served as a coordination point for the technology that cable 3 Rhythms Net Connections (1998). 4 Kende (2000) 5 Curran (1997) 10

13 systems eventually implemented in the local portions of their networks, and in the consumer premises equipment (CPE or cable modems) that cable subscribers used to connect to the high-speed network. The existence made it easier for a group of cable companies to standardize on a single technological solution for cable high-speed access despite the differences in the quality of their networks. This in turn facilitated the development of more standardized cable modems, leading to the ability to achieve economies of scale in production and made it easier to provide customer service. Even though there were other cable high-speed access companies, the small number and the guidance of CableLabs (a cable industry research consortium) made it easier to agree on common technology standards and realize economies of scale in equipment production. On the DSL side, telephone networks were more homogeneous and BellCore (a local telephone company industry research consortium) had helped guide the development of DSL technology over a long period of time (Marples, 2004). Thus, the need for a third party to implement a consistent standard to achieve economies of scale in equipment and market was not as necessary. Most CLECs and ILECs used similar equipment for the provision of DSL service. III. Access technologies and initial business models The initial reactions of cable providers and telephone companies to the high-speed access opportunity were very different; their reactions were driven by their networks, experience and regulation. 11

14 A. Cable modem Cable companies responded to the high-speed access opportunity by working with other cable companies to outsource routing and technology. In 1995 TCI, the largest cable company, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a leading venture capital firm, to develop a business that would provide high-speed Internet access for households and businesses. In 1996 and 1997 other cable firms joined, and the company issued shares to the public in In 1999, AT&T acquired TCI s cable assets and its ownership stake and later that merged with Excite Inc. ( Excite ), a leading portal/search engine business (At Home, s residential Internet access business was predicated on the ability to use the coaxial cable plant (which provided cable television signals) as the pipe to provide high-speed Internet access to the s role was to provide system management, Internet backbone service, regional data centers, connectivity services, hardware, content and some marketing and customer and its cable partners developed a model was responsible for the service between cable headends and the Internet. Figure 1 shows the cable high-speed Internet access network provided and cable companies. The lines from the subscribers homes to cable headends were provided by cable provided the regional data centers, caching, and Internet also assisted cable companies with the development of customer billing and support mechanisms. The main features of portion of the network were took traffic at the cable headends, aggregated and managed the traffic at regional data centers (RDCs), and provided some caching of popular content at the regional data centers 12

15 (and some closer to the cable headends). Past the had a virtual private national backbone that interconnected with other Internet backbone providers at a variety of network access points. Time Warner was the only large cable company not aligned Instead, Time Warner developed its own high-speed access service called Roadrunner. Roadrunner was a competitor both companies attempted to provide thirdparty high-speed access service to other cable companies. There were a number of possible reasons why most cable companies decided to outsource part of the provision of high-speed access The cable companies may have seen that there were economies of scale in developing the technology and platform for cable high-speed access. Because, in 1995, each cable company covered only a fraction of the country (TCI had 26% of nationwide cable subscribers, Comcast 5.7% and Cox 5.3%), no one company alone would be able to realize the full extent of the economies of scale in product development. 6 In addition to having relatively small national shares in 1995, cable companies had not amalgamated clusters as they did subsequently. As a result, it would be more efficient for the multiple cable operators in a geographic area to band together to provide regional aggregation for their high-speed access services. In the beginning of high-speed access, only a few customers in any geographic area would be expected sign up for service, increasing the benefits of having a regional provider. Economies could be in traffic aggregation, in caching services and also in promotion and advertising. Without a 6 Federal Communications Commission (1995). 13

16 partnership cable companies might not have been able to realize fully the benefits of their investments in high-speed access. Cable companies had previously banded together to produce complementary products that enhanced the value of their connections to homes. Much of the early cable television programming was undertaken by cable television companies themselves (Waterman and Weiss, 1997). Cable companies made equity investments in cable networks to provide the content that could make their cables more valuable. But, in many cases, no single cable company owned 100% of the programming. partnership solved some of the perceived problems in 1995 by allowing for technology coordination, and realization of the economies of scale that smaller and less concentrated cable companies could not achieve on their own in One important feature of the business was that cable companies had substantial ownership stakes and Roadrunner. B. DSL The initial residential Internet access business began with third-party dial-up companies providing service using standard telephone lines connecting consumer modems to modem banks and subsequently to the Internet. While AOL became by far the largest provider of dial-up Internet access, there were thousands of dial-up providers and telephone companies were not large providers (Downes and Greenstein 2002). For highspeed access, the story was very different. Prior to the 1996 Telecom Act, only telephone companies provided higher speed access using their facilities. This was generally done through T-1 lines and ISDN service, both of which were relatively expensive and focused on business customers. The Telecom Act changed the framework for high-speed access 14

17 because it required ILECs to allow CLECs to lease unbundled pieces of the network (UNEs) at regulated rates. In response to this opportunity, several entrepreneurs developed business plans to provide service through leased lines. Covad Communications provides a typical example. 7 Covad was started in 1996, right after the FCC order implementing the Telecom Act and mandating that states use a forward-looking cost model to determine UNE prices. Covad was started by several venture capital firms and Intel Corporation. It began service in the San Francisco Bay Area in December 1997 and expanded to Los Angeles, New York and Boston in 1998 and other areas thereafter. CLECs generally predicated their business plans on collocating facilities in the ILECs central offices and leasing unbundled loops from the ILECs at regulated rates. Typical CLEC networks are illustrated in Figure 2. The CLEC uses an unbundled loop supplied by the ILEC. The loop is routed from the main distribution frame inside the central office to a CLEC collocation cage in the building. The CLEC provides the DSL electronics at the consumer end and at its end of the loop. It aggregates the traffic from multiple central offices, often using ILEC transport services and then manages the network in a manner similar However, the CLECs did not generally provide as extensive caching services, and provided their own billing services. CLECs had a fixed cost for each central office collocation facility and additional costs for each line served; the CLEC paid for the unbundled loop as well as DSL electronics on each line. CLECs believed that they could provide better service to their 7 Information in this section comes primarily from Covad s S-1, September 21, 1998 and S-1 s of NorthPoint and Rhythms NetConnections. 15

18 customers then the ILECs in several respects: they were dedicated to providing highspeed access; they monitored the network to ensure quality; and they could provide service across vast geographic territories which would be attractive to enterprises wishing to have a single point of supply for their high-speed access needs. The CLEC business model was predicated on continued regulation of rates for unbundled network elements. Essentially, the CLECs were using the ILEC network for the bulk of their services and providing other services on top of the ILEC network as their value-added. To take advantage of the situation, CLECs made upfront investments for their equipment in the ILEC central offices and make monthly payments for leased elements. The ILECs did not want to outsource high-speed access provision, but were forced to accommodate third-party provision on a price-regulated basis (Brock, 2003). On the DSL side, ILECs were actively trying to prevent the emergence of separate DSL companies and not entering into partnerships with these companies. Virtually none of the agreements under the 1996 Telecom Act between ILECs and CLECs were voluntary agreements, but instead the result of mandated state arbitration, and there were virtually no investments by ILECs in CLECs, either in their own regions or in other service territories. Telephone network quality across the country was much more homogeneous than cable network quality. A DSL solution that worked for one telephone company would generally work for all. The major difference between ILECs was the percentage of loops that were longer than 18,000 feet (the length of loops over which DSL worked at the time) and the percentage that were served by Digital Loop Carriers (DLC) (Bernstein and 16

19 McKinsey, 2000). Other factors such as load coils also affected the ability to deliver high-speed access. The Bell companies worked jointly through their research arm, BellCore on common DSL technology. Also, because DSL implementation required expertise more akin to the management of a telephone network with two-way traffic and load management than the one-way cable television network, telephone companies also believed that they had the requisite in-house expertise to manage a high-speed access network. In 1995, telephone companies were much more clustered than cable companies. There were very few major metropolitan areas with multiple telephone companies. As a result, telephone companies could internalize the benefits of advertising and consumer education more easily than the less clustered cable companies and did not need to construct a new entity to capture the externalities. The 1984 Consent Decree tried to keep the ILECs from leveraging market power in a regulated business into potentially competitive unregulated businesses (Noll and Owen, 1994). The CLECs used unbundled loops to compete with the ILECs own highspeed offerings as well as the ILEC second line service used for dial-up access. But, because of the regulation, in addition to general vertical strategic incentives, the ILECs had similar incentives as they did before the 1984 breakup. With unregulated DSL service and regulated wholesale and other retail services, the ILECs would have liked to push as much profit to the DSL business. For example, while opposing line-sharing obligations at the FCC, some ILECs used a zero cost intra-firm transfer price for internal line sharing, but wanted to charge the entire cost of the line to CLEC competitors (Bernstein and McKinsey, 2000). 17

20 Telephone companies had also had experience with outsourcing a complementary service: long distance telephony. As part of the AT&T antitrust suit and divestiture, the RBOCs were prevented from providing long distance telephone service beginning in Over the ensuing 12 years, they continually petitioned the court and congress to be allowed into the long distance business. During this time, RBOCs were forced to sell access to the long distance companies at regulated rates rather than to provide integrated service. The regulated mandate of UNE prices akin to the old access charge regime signaled to the RBOCs that they would again be at the mercy of regulators and might again be hobbled in their ability to provide integrated services. Finally, the existing competitive positions of the firms were probably important. As discussed above, most of the Internet access in the mid-1990s through 2001 was dialup access (NTIA, 2004). Despite problems with heavy traffic loads at certain switches, ILECs benefited from the increased demand for Internet access through the sale of second lines. FCC data show that residential access lines increased nearly 20% from 1995 through 1999 (FCC 2005). Much of that was due to demand for second lines for Internet access as of 2001, more than 44 million households had dial-up internet access compared with about 10 million on broadband (NTIA, 2004). Because the supply of substitute high-speed access lines reduced the demand for second telephone lines, the ILECs stood to benefit less from the transition to high-speed than did cable companies or the CLECs. For the ILECs, the opportunity cost of a high-speed line included the foregone second line contribution. Cable companies and the CLECs accurately saw this offset as zero while ILECs realized this cost. The nature of the opportunity cost changed over 18

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